It's an Authentic Post-Apocalyptic Experience
Well, not that I know what a truly authentic experience would be, but this is how I imagine it. Throughout the eight or so hours I've been playing the game, I feel like I'm just barely surviving. There never seems to be enough ammo, so I end up taking a few shots at things and then pulling out my baseball bat to finish the job. Every weapon I find is in disrepair and I have to scavenge parts from other guns to repair them to the best of my ability, which isn't much to speak of. Indeed, scavenging is the name of the game here, which seems like a plausible reality for the post-apocalypse. You can find plans for DIY weapons that require you to hunt for real-world parts, like pilot lights you have to pull out of the stoves in abandoned homes and handbrakes from motorcycles. This isn't breaking open boxes to find items incongruent with the environment, this is a scavenger hunt that you can approach in a realistic manner. I'm always low on clean health supplies, and I have to resort to eating irradiated food and drinking from contaminated bathroom sinks (preferable to the toilets), which gives me radiation sickness. When these aren't handy, I have to resort to taking drugs, which I then become addicted to and when I run out of my pill of choice the withdrawals set in and I find I can't do things I could do before, like pick tough locks or hit the broad side of a barn with my gun. Suddenly rifling through some nice lady's cabinets for another fix doesn't seem wrong, it seems necessary.
It's Got Good Characters
This game is like Oblivion in a lot of ways, but one department in which it has made a huge leap is with the NPCs. There are tons more unique personalities--you don't keep running into basically the same guy over and over again like in Oblivion. The voice acting is all very solid, and the writing is varied enough for different characters that you really do want to have conversations with them and listen to all they have to say. Oh, speaking of voice acting did I mention Academy Award-nominated Liam Neeson plays your father? And geekanerd icon Malcolm McDowell voices the "President?" Yeah, Bethesda is taking this shit seriously.
It's Got Great Environments
Pretty early in the game you meet a well-dressed stranger in a saloon that tries to enlist your help in blowing up the town. I turned down the offer, and then next time I ran into the sheriff I tipped him off to the plot. I tagged along while the sheriff went to confront the stranger, and when the guy unexpectedly pulled a gun and killed the sheriff, I pulled mine and killed him in turn. It was like a Quentin Tarantino movie. I went to the sheriff's house and talked with his now orphaned child about his father. As I was leaving the kid opened a bottle of whiskey and took a swig. With the sheriff out of the way, scumbag saloon owner Colin Moriarity is in charge of the town and everyone is miserable. Now that whole sequence was cool and all, but I'm so curious to play again and see how things could turn out differently based on my actions. I want to know what it's like to blow up the town. I want to murder the stranger before he gets to kill the sheriff, and see if I'm punished for my crime--I doubt the "But sheriff, he killed you in an alternate timeline" defense works in the game. I want to let him kill the sheriff but spare his life to see if he takes it upon himself to blow up the town now that the law is out of the way and his plot is exposed. Or will the townspeople descend upon him themselves to murder him? Will the sheriff's kid take that rifle off of the wall and avenge his father's death? Would the sheriff have played a part down the line in my ongoing story if he had lived? There are so many moments in the game where you are given real choices that affect your gameplay experience, and it's hard not to want to experience everything--which is why I know I'll be playing this one a few more times, because there's just no way you can experience the whole story with one character.
It's Got Great Environments
Another are where this game is a huge improvement over Oblivion is in the environment. It may not be as large as the aforementioned game, but where many of the dungeons and much of the countryside in Oblivion were uninspired to the point of feeling randomly generated, every hill you walk over in Fallout reveals a unique, lived in environment. An abandoned drive-in movie theater, abandoned gas stations, abandoned diners, abandoned supermarkets--there's always some interesting abandoned thing you'll want to go explore. I haven't even gone to downtown DC yet to explore the ruins of the US Capitol and the surrounding environs, but I have a hunch it's going to be more interesting than the row after row of dry identical streets in Oblivion's capital city.
I know that sounds dumb, right? Restrictions are bad, right? Not so, says I. In much the same way your actions in the game are actual choices because they require the sacrifice of another experience, building your character stats requires actual choice because you simply can't have everything. This is not an RPG where you level up indefinitely and continually boost your stats and eventually become an unstoppable God. Your seven core attributes (strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility and luck) basically remain unchanged for the duration of the game, and you stop leveling up and boosting your secondary skills at level 20--by then you're fully developed. You've made a choice about what sort of character you are and what you're capable and incapable of, and you have to live with it. How wonderful! I'm constantly running into locks I can't pick and people I can't persuade because of how I've chosen to dole out my experience points. There are ways I have to do things that are very different from how a differently built character would go about them, and it's exciting to work within those limitations. UPDATE: Reading the response to this article at RPG Codex, it's apparent that eventually you do start feeling like an unstoppable God. Like I said earlier in the article, I've only been playing for about eight hours so I'm just not there yet. Oh, to remain Level 8 forever...